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The Hair and Makeup of Teenage Alienation in ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

WWD talked to makeup designer Natalie Cosco and hair department head Jeannie Chow about crafting the looks for the coming-of-age movie starring Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson.

Coming-of-age movies don’t succeed unless they resonate with teenagers like the ones they portray, and that’s not likely to happen if the characters look generationally out of sync. For “The Edge of Seventeen,” the latest entrant in the genre premiering Friday and starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick, director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig instructed the makeup and hair team to avoid Hollywood glamour in favor of low-key high-school upkeep. “Most of the girls are pretty simple and basic. Nobody really wants to stand out,” explained Natalie Cosco, the film’s makeup designer. Cosco and hair department head Jeannie Chow chatted with WWD about realistically depicting adolescence, the infamous Pedro hair from “Napoleon Dynamite,” and the role beauty plays in growing up as a girl.

WWD: What research did you do to prep for “The Edge of Seventeen”?

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Natalie Cosco: I have two daughters, and I interviewed them. When you are a young teenager, you have a lot going on in your mind. You may be trying to follow the trends, but you don’t really have the tools, and maybe you don’t have a mom to show you the ropes. A lot of time they err on the side of not wearing much makeup.

Jeannie Chow: I have a teenage niece, and she’s 15. I get a lot of inspiration from her, the kind of music she listens to and the clothes she wears. I also just walked around and looked at people. Lorde provided a lot of inspiration for Nadine, the character played by Hailee Steinfeld, as well as the classic teen movies with Winona Ryder and Molly Ringwald. She has a lot of teenage angst, and I was trying to capture that mood and energy with all the different cliques and groups.

WWD: In the movie, Nadine wears her hair down. Why?

J.C.: That was a character choice for her to always wear her hair down. We start her at age six or seven, and she has an unruly head of hair, and that sets the tone as she gets older. She is not conscious of being vain. As she evolves into being a teenager, she does style her hair, but it is very minimal. It is not really drawing a lot of attention to her.

WWD: How did you keep the characters looking natural with their makeup?

N.C.: I picked more corrective makeup for the girls to bring out their natural beauty without it reading like they were wearing makeup. Hailee had a couple of different looks. She was very concerned with making sure we used products that were healthy and nontoxic. I do carry a lot that leans in that direction. I used eye shadows, cheek colors and lip tints from Tarte. We used a line called Koh Gen Do for foundation that left a nice finish on her face, and I used It Cosmetics. They have really great gel liners that blend out nicely.

WWD: Tell me about the flashback scene in which Nadine compares her hair to Pedro’s hair in “Napoleon Dynamite.”

J.C.: We had a custom wig built for Hailee. She goes for a short haircut and gets all her hair cut off in a short style, but it definitely doesn’t match the picture she brought in, and she ends up looking like Pedro. Funnily enough, “Napoleon Dynamite” is one of my favorite movies. When I read the script, I knew exactly what the Pedro hair looked like, and I laughed out loud. It brought me back to a pixie cut I got that I thought was going to be beautiful and ended up making me look like a Mon Chi Chi.

N.C.: The Pedro hair scene was superfun for someone like myself. I got to make fake pimples on Hailee. She was totally game. Puberty had hit, and her skin had gone to hell. They wanted pimples, and for her eyebrows to be crazy and furry in the center. I glued single hairs into that area to give the illusion that she had a unibrow. That was a funny comedic moment that really turned out great, and the look helped to sell it.

WWD: Nadine steps up her makeup and hair for a date. How did you make it distinct from her everyday look?    

N.C.: I always try to put myself in the place of the character. She’s excited. She might ask her friends to see what would be a good idea to add to her look. Today’s trend is that a lot of young people are using heavier eyeliner with a wing. We gave her a winged gel liner, did a bit of shimmer eye shadow and a pop of cheek color for glow. We defined her eyebrows a little bit. Eyebrows are very in right now. We didn’t go crazy with that, though, because it has to be believable that the character would have the knowledge, talent and skill to do it.

J.C.: She straightens her hair. It was a big transformation for her to go from wavy to straight hair. She makes an effort, but she doesn’t want to look like she spent hours on her hair, even though she did. There is that balance of not looking like you’ve tried too hard and not looking like you haven’t tried enough. She doesn’t want to be that girl who tries to hard, the popular girl who’s in front of the mirror all the time.

WWD: It seems like hair and makeup played a crucial part in telling Nadine’s story. I think a lot of people can relate to appearance being top of mind during adolescence.

J.C.: Hair is so important to people, more important to people than they even realize. Those moments when you get a really had hair color or haircut are really, “Oh my God, what I have done?” moments where you gasp, especially in those horrible pre-teen years when haven’t finished growing into your body. We’ve all been there.

WWD: Have your daughters seen the movie?

N.C.: They are going to see it this weekend. I am very excited for them to see it. When it was filming, I said to them, “I am doing really light makeup on the character. What do you think? Do think that’s going to be right?” They said, “Absolutely mom. It always drives us crazy when there are movies about high schoolers and their makeup is all done up.” I will be thrilled to hear their thoughts. I hope they think I pulled it off.